Childhood Sexual Abuse Causes Physical Brain Damage: An Alarming New Study

The hippocampus as shown in this Harvard Medical School diagram.
The hippocampus as shown in this Harvard Medical School diagram.
The brain cannot process stress properly if it has been damaged. Photo courtesy of US Army.
The brain cannot process stress properly if it has been damaged. Photo courtesy of US Army.
Repressed, eerie childhood secrets can only add to the survivor's sense of shame and failure..
Repressed, eerie childhood secrets can only add to the survivor’s sense of shame and failure..

By Gloria Siess, {“Garnetbird”}

It is estimated that childhood sexual abuse affects over 40 million people yearly, just in the United States alone. To those of you, like myself, who struggle daily with symptoms and defense mechanisms aquired from childhood incest, this study will prove especially enlightening. It will also, hopefully soften the attitude of family members and close friends who must endure the drama of the survivor. So many times I have heard well-meaning people state, “Just move on and forget about it,” or the more judgmental, “You’re just CHOOSING to be unhappy.”

The problem is not that survivors want to stay miserable–new research indicates that childhood sexual trauma causes actual shrinkage and damage to the part of the brain called the hippocampus. This finding in itself is shocking and astounding. The hippocampus deals with learning, stress responses and memory. When brain stressors such as early sexual abuse and incest impact its development in children, the lasting effects into adulthood can be profound. Pop-up memories, intrusive, negative thoughts, flashbacks and a kind of over-all numbing called disassociation are just some of the symptoms this causes. To anyone who like myself has experienced incest recall “popping up” while they are pushing a grocery cart, this can be devastating and difficult to treat even with the best of therapists.

Some of the symptoms associated with the shrinkage of the hippocampus feed into what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This bag of disturbing “tricks” the mind plays on survivors includes flashbacks, feeling uneasy and “on edge,” and on guard constantly, nightmares, and general problems associated with memory. Gaps in memory can also occur, for a few minutes to a few days. This may well explain the emergence of abuse memories suddenly “popping up” at a later age in a survivor’s life. The hippocampus also affects the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, where stress responses are absorbed and dealt with.

Incest survivors have a far more serious response to stress than those who have not experienced severe childhood abuse. I, for one, have to get more sleep than what is normal in order to function in a stable manner. I also need down time in which to think, dream and generaly detach from outside stressors. This need can appear to others as being “lazy” or even “spoiled.” Think of the Incest Survivor as a very sensitive child in an adult body. The child has to be protected constantly in order to thrive and feel “safe.”Again, this is not coddling oneself. With brain damage as a side effect of such abuse, all survivors need to watch and monitor their stress responses carefully. One of my favorite sayings is, “I’m not hiding from life…I’m healing from it.”

We all admire injured or disabled athletes for jogging or walking at their own pace. We think of them as brave and heroic. In this same manner, the Trauma Victim needs to be viewed in a positive light, not judged for pulling away when they need to. Quiet “down time” can be very healing and soothing. Or as a friend of mine said (who experienced Satanic Ritual Abuse as a little girl} “I don’t need dramas or roller coasters. Inside, I AM a roller coaster.”

The work Dr. Bremner conducted took place at the Yale Psychiatric Institute, and has been met with interesting reactions. Many Incest survivors find his work to be liberating and validating; others are disgusted and think it’s “hogwash,” in so many words.

Note: For many of us–myself included–extensive therapy is very helpful and can be life-saving. However, for those of us who do not possess the health coverage and means for regular therapy, a local Incest Survivors Group may provide a supportive, healing environment. Groups may differ, and you may have to shop around for the appropriate setting in which to heal. I personally hooked up with a powerful group in Southern California and am the better person for it. Our Group Moderator was a ritual abuse survivor who was literally tortured sexually for many years and now teaches other survivors to let their “inner child” play and heal.

Dr. Bremner is still on the Faculty at Yale–I recommend his article, “Does Stress Damage The Brain?”



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